Lutheranism began as a preaching movement. While not often given the attention it deserves by scholars, Luther put a premium on his Postille, sermons published to serve as models for preachers and for Christian edification. Doctrinally sound, engaging, and Christ-giving preaching is a non-negotiable hallmark of the Church of the Reformation. This collection of seventeen essays by both younger and seasoned theologians and pastors will strengthen that conviction and provide substantive, meaty reflection on preaching today. It is fair to say that contemporary American society values therapeutic, pick-me-up, inspirational talks but not robust proclamation. Preachers who wish fearlessly to proclaim the truth will find their vocation empowered in these essays.
First in line, John Bombara describes the current milieu for preachers as consumerist. But obviously preaching cannot be tantamount to selling goods if it is to be faithful to the truth. He indicates that sermons can be modeled after a number of different structures, (1) textual (i.e., exposition), (2) thematic (i.e., topics), and (3) dynamic (i.e., narrative preaching style). But the key to Lutheran preaching “is the living dynamic of law and gospel applied to hearers (as primary discourse), which discursive and living dynamic can make use of virtually any type of sermon structure (including dynamic structures) toward the proclamation and application of law-and-gospel” (24). This law/gospel approach pits Lutheranism against consumerism: “Consumerism and Lutheranism are a clash of orthodoxies precisely at the point of justification. Lutheranism, however, is at home in the church as the church, while consumerism must remain alien to the church if the law and gospel are to be efficaciously preached and ‘the whole counsel of God’ broadcast” (26).
Developing a theme echoed by other essayists here, Mark Birkholz grounds preaching in truth. The scriptures upon which preaching is based are reliable. “The preacher’s words are certain, even if they are not judged so by the hearers. The certainty of the message of Jesus is testified to by its coherence with the preceding word of God (fulfillment) and by the witness of those who have seen and heard the events of salvation” (40). Paul Elliot notes that the time-honored approach to the Old Testament through typology, i.e., that the Old Testament throughout mirrors and portrays Jesus Christ, makes it relevant and powerful for Christian proclamation. Christ is the “link” between the Old Testament and today (61). Rick Serina appeals to a late medieval theologian, Nicholas of Cusa, noted for his role in education, theology, and the care of souls, in order to advocate that “the reform of the church—including anything resembling a reformation of preaching—would prove impossible apart from the reform of the clergy. Without well educated, theologically competent ecclesiastics and pastors who can bring their competence to bear upon their responsibilities within the church, there is no hope for changing thought and practice in a healthy, productive fashion. Reformation begins with the clergy” (75). Furthering the theme of truth, Roy A. Coates, appealing to Johann Gerhard, maintains that sound preaching needs systematic content. “Without systematic knowledge, preaching has nothing to instruct or refute, and no certain basis from which to encourage, correct, or comfort” (95).
Jacob Corzine appeals to Johannes Brenz’s articulation of a double faith (fides duplex) in order to help preachers who proclaim to those who oscillate between faith and doubt (as so many of us do) and rightly shows that faith rests on the objectivity of the means of grace (111). Jonathan Mumme builds from the distinction of preachers identifying with their audience (we) and differentiating themselves in proclamation (I and you). Ultimately, in proclamation it is Christ speaking through the preacher, and that is the basis for the preacher’s authority in preaching. That Christ is so present frees preachers from having to “actualize” the text for hearers (137). Steve Paulson notes that the preached word is a verbum reale or efficax, a creating word, and not merely one which persuades or instructs. John Pless similarly underscores the sacramental dimension of preaching in which the preacher “does the text” that kills and justifies the hearers (169). The liturgical undergirding of preaching is precisely sacramental. Countering antinomianism, Hans-Jörg Voigt claims that proclamation is not to be set in opposition to parenesis. Instead, in light of the gospel there is a third use of the law. The Christian is called to struggle against sin in his own life and to seek to better this world.
In light of the fact that the great homilies of the church fathers could be read in lieu of one’s own sermon, then why preaching? David Peterson takes on that question. In a word, the Holy Spirit creates faith for the assembled congregation through preaching. A parish pastor has a word that no one else can say since he is most in touch with the life of the parish. Esko Murto takes on the doctrines of election, the bondage of the will, and original sin that naturally offend all sinners. The answer to the question of election (“am I elect?”) is that preaching frees the conscience, brings the promise home to sinners, secures them in salvation; to the “bondage of the will,” preaching imparts Christ and so frees the despairing conscience; and, with original sin, we can be forgiven that we are unable to offer perfect contrition.
Realizing that many parishioners are in grief, Jeremiah Johnson advocates that we should preach from the lament psalms precisely because “they do not peddle easy answers or seek to resolve the eschatological tension between the present age and the age to come. . . . [T]he laments are also brazenly confident not only in the Lord’s past faithfulness, but especially in his future action” (238). Recognizing that most preachers care for souls, Jakob Appell develops the metaphor of preacher as “physician for the sick in spirit.” Ultimately preachers are not mere healers but share a word that unlocks death and hell (256). Again, appealing to truth, Daniel Schmidt notes that there are many methods for preaching, but ultimately a sermon is not to be judged by its method but its theology. Finally, Gottfried Martens unguardedly shares the exigencies of the preparation process for preaching. With time, the steps can be internalized. Sermons are best when memorized. “In memorizing the sermon the preacher steps, to a certain degree, into the shoes of the hearers, for that which lacks clarity of thought cannot easily be memorized and similarly will have a hard time sticking with the hearers. In being memorized the sermon is honed to a final sharp edge that also makes it better for the hearers to follow” (296).
These essays are of the highest caliber. The only way to have improved this book would have been for each author to have published a model sermon alongside his essay. That is where the rubber hits the road. Not many authors here refer to the “goal, malady, means” approach to homiletics, but I have puzzled over the fact that Luther’s sermons tend to be expository, didactic, personal, and direct. Luther never has a three-point sermon (which I ever heard as a child) nor does he have a sermon proportioned as half law and half gospel. Law and gospel shine through Luther’s sermons, but only as he exposits the word of God. Nor is Luther shy of admonition, as Voigt would remind us, especially when he preaches on the epistles.
Need a recharge in your confidence in the ability of God’s word to “bring home the goods”? Give this book a sustained reading and allow it to unsettle your despondency about preaching and empower you to joyfully proclaim the good news.
Mark C. Mattes
Grand View University
Des Moines, IA